NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

How to respond to people with depression

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

“Why do some people treat you like a delicate flower when you “come out” as mentally ill?” Via Twitter

There is little doubt we’ve come a long way with reducing the stigma around mental illness. John Kirwan, Mike King and others have worked hard to make it okay for us to talk about depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental health difficulties.

But how should those listening best respond? Now we know what not to say, what should we say instead? Can we accidentally do things that are stigmatizing?

Even well-intentioned behaviour can communicate that someone struggling with depression or anxiety is fragile, broken or somehow disabled. Needless to say, this doesn’t help.


• Questions will remain anonymous
Anyone who has “come out” as suffering from a mental illness will know that things as subtle as a patronizing look, being asked repeatedly (even nervously) if you’re “OK”, or appearing uncomfortable and never talking about it again once told, can all potentially feel as hurtful as being called “crazy.”

Before you cry “PC gone mad”, words do matter. Slang terms like crazy, mad and “schizo” hurt. Sure, not everyone might be offended by them but while getting used to having depression can be hard, no one wants to be “crazy.”

So what can you do if a friend or family member tells you they’re depressed or anxious?

• First, educate yourself. If they’ve received a diagnosis, Google it. It isn’t up to the person to help you understand what it means, they’ve got enough to do without having to help you out as well.

• Examine and be careful with your own language – words matter.

• Don’t assume they need help. Ask. What do you need? Is there anything I can do? What would be helpful? And if they say “nothing” respect that.

• Allow them space to reach their own conclusions about what help they need, and what treatment will work for them.

• Avoid sympathizing. Instead, empathize and validate.

•If they’re upset instead of asking “what’s wrong?” ask “what happened?” Odds are they’re already feeling like something is “wrong” with them, and being upset happens to all of us: for a reason.

•Don’t be afraid of their emotions. Depressed people are allowed to feel sad, anxious people can still get worried. Don’t assume being upset means they’re “not well.”

•Hold the hope. Don’t worry about what you read, recovery is always possible, and your support matters.

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